Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Opinion

A right to European asylum

Instead of asking what's 'fair' for states, let's ask what's just for asylum seekers

Martina Tazzioli Maurice Stierl
31 January 2023, 10.42am

'Nobody is illegal'


Wolfram Steinberg/dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

In January 2023, the Italian government introduced a code of conduct for NGO vessels undertaking search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean Sea. Among other provisions, this requires vessels to request a place of safety immediately after concluding a rescue operation, making it more difficult for them to rescue further migrant boats. Italian authorities have also instructed the NGOs to disembark at distant ports. This means that large vessels capable of carrying hundreds of people at a time, such as the Geo Barents of Doctors without Borders, are being sent with few survivors all the way to northern Italy – a journey that can take several days. The decree also obliges crew members to collect information from the rescued regarding their intent to apply for asylum and to share that information with the authorities.

These new developments have drawn strong criticism from both inside Italy and across Europe. Lawyers and human rights organisations have said the new rules clearly violate international maritime law and European Union law, while NGOs have pointed out that this will further widen the existing rescue gap in the central Mediterranean Sea. They fear that the death toll in this region will increase in consequence. A consortium of NGOs has called upon the European Commission and EU member states to respond strongly to the Italian decree.

A solution for Europe rather than Italy

The Italian decision to deliberately obstruct civil rescuers requires strong condemnation. Rendering assistance to anyone in distress at sea is required by law, as is allowing those rescued to disembark at a place where their “safety of life is no longer threatened”. This much is clear.

That said, we need to go beyond criticising Italy’s actions. This is not simply an Italian but very much a European problem. The critique now emerging from NGOs and the political Left needs to go beyond singling out certain EU member states and instead voice a general demand: We need a right to European asylum.

Such a right would comprise two main components. First, everyone who seeks asylum in Europe should have the right to decide where to claim asylum in the continent. Second, anyone who receives asylum should enjoy the right to free movement and to work in Europe – just as European citizens do today. Combined, these elements would finally do away with Europe’s politics of containment that prevent many from leading dignified lives – living in legal and social limbo if they do move away from the first country of entry, constantly at risk of being detained and ‘Dublin-deported’. A right to European asylum would put refugees’ freedoms at the centre of political visions.

Preferences need to be taken seriously – not those of states but of the people whose lives are at stake

Right-wing and populist parties from southern European states currently dominate critical discussions of the Dublin Regulation – the rules governing how Europe distributes responsibility for incoming asylum applications among member states. They take particular issue with its ‘country of first reception’ principle, which requires asylum seekers to file their claim in the first EU member state they enter. They view this requirement as placing an undue burden on states geographically located at Europe’s external frontiers.

As a joint statement issued late last year by Greece, Italy, Malta, and Cyprus said: “we cannot subscribe to the notion that countries of first entry are the only possible European landing spots for illegal immigrants, especially when this happens in an uncoordinated fashion based on the basis of a choice made by private vessels, acting in total autonomy from the competent state authorities.”

Though often decried as ‘asylum shopping’, it is clear that those who arrive move to places where they hope to have the best chances to thrive in life. They decide where to go based on the presence of relatives and friends, linguistic communities, job opportunities, or dozens of other reasons. These preferences need to be taken seriously – not those of states but of the people whose lives are at stake.

Mobilising for the right to rescue and the right to disembark at a place of safety thus must be situated within a politics of freedom of moving and of staying. This means advocating for a right to European asylum.

A burden for whom?

The volume of the right-wing critique drowns out other voices arguing against Europe’s policy of containment, and thereby allows them to set the terms of the debate.

Instead of discussing the fundamental injustice of the current system for directly affected people, we are inundated by nationalistic battles over what’s unbearable for states. The question of ‘fair burden sharing’ is usually fought out as a numbers game. Right-wing parties in southern Europe decry ‘too many migrants’, to which others respond by pointing to statistics which show that Germany, France and Spain host more asylum seekers than Italy even if many currently disembark there.

This ‘reality check’, however, is ultimately a trap. It doesn’t get us away from the implicit assumption that there is an acceptable number of asylum seekers, or that there can be too many. As long as that thought remains dominant, the political right can always argue that the current number, however low, is too high.

It is paramount that progressive voices break the right’s monopoly on this issue by loudly denouncing both anti-rescue policies and the Dublin Regulation. They need to be guided by a positive demand and vision, a struggle for a right to European asylum that would enable migrant ‘newcomers’ to decide where to claim asylum and where to live and work in Europe.

Calling for such right is not an abstract claim. It means expanding the basic and fundamental freedom of EU citizens to encompass also those who have risked their lives across violent borders to seek international protection in Europe. It also means legalising a practice that thousands of migrant newcomers enact regardless of the Dublin Regulation, defiantly ‘self-relocating’ beyond the first country of arrival. The claim to a right to European asylum also resonates with a range of solidarity networks that have mobilised across Europe in a collective struggle to prevent those ‘on the move’ from falling into the spatial trap of the Dublin Regulation.

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